Tennessee Preview

Tennessee's offense scored 18.6 points per game last season. Tennessee's defense allowed 18.6 points per game last season. Unfortunately for the Vols, that's not the kind of balance head coach Phillip Fulmer had in mind.

When a Tennessee football team goes 5-6, fans are upset. When a Tennessee football team projected in preseason as a national title contender goes 5-6, fans are enraged. Fans were so enraged by what happened in 2005 that Fulmer broke with long-standing tradition and revamped his coaching staff.

After firing just two aides – Tim Keane and Mark Bradley – in his first 13 years on the job, Fulmer fired two more – receivers coach Pat Washington and offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens – at the end of Year 14. A third assistant, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, resigned before he could be fired.

The shuffling didn't stop there, however. Fulmer hired Kurt Roper as running backs coach, then moved Trooper Taylor from running backs coach to wide receivers coach. Fulmer hired Matt Luke as tight ends coach, then moved Greg Adkins from tight ends coach to offensive line coach. The biggest piece of the puzzle was hiring David Cutcliffe for a second tour as offensive coordinator. Cutcliffe coordinated high-scoring Vol offenses from 1993-98 before taking the reins at Ole Miss. Now that he has returned, Vol fans are hoping Tennessee's days as an offensive force will return, as well.

Fulmer always prided himself on staff stability but that's a faded memory now; every offensive position will have a new coach in 2006. Even so, Tennessee's attack won't look a whole lot different schematically. Sanders learned the offense from Cutcliffe, so the Vols essentially will be running the same stuff in 2006 they ran in 2005. They just hope to run it better ... MUCH better.

Junior quarterback Erik Ainge, who Fulmer compared to ex-Vol Peyton Manning just one year ago, struggled mightily in 2005. He must bounce back in a big way if Tennessee is to challenge for the SEC East title in 2006. Tailback Arian Foster, who starred as a redshirt freshman last fall, needs to avoid the sophomore jinx. A youthful offensive line needs to grow up quickly and the receiving corps must produce a go-to guy and a big-play guy.

That's asking a lot. Whether Cutcliffe can deliver the goods remains to be seen.

Defensively, the Vols are a team in transition. Gone are three members of last fall's front four, all three starting linebackers and superstar cornerback Jason Allen, a first-round pick in the most recent NFL Draft.

Despite the heavy losses, Tennessee's stop unit should be solid again. The one returnee in the front four, senior tackle Justin Harrell, is an All-America candidate. A half-dozen promising young pups are bidding to join him in the first-team line, and the new linebackers probably have more raw talent than the guys they're replacing. Allen missed the last half of his senior season with a dislocated hip, so the secondary already has adjusted to his absence.

Moreover, the defense should get considerably more help from the offense in 2006 than it received in 2005. Vol defenders spent way too much time on the field last fall due to the utter ineptitude of their offensive counterparts. The resulting late-game fatigue explains how Tennessee allowed just 18 third-quarter points last fall but surrendered 72 fourth-quarter points.

Another byproduct of last fall's offensive woes was that Vol defenders rarely had the luxury of good field position or a lead that enabled them to pin back their ears and launch an all-out rush on the passer.

The obvious question: Can Cutcliffe revive an offense that appeared comatose in 2005? He'd better. With six new faces in the Vols' defensive front seven, the stop unit is going to need a whole lot more help than it got from the attack unit last fall.

And here's one final concern: With Tennessee coming off a 5-6 season, you have to wonder what the mental condition of the players will be. Are they determined to redeem themselves after producing the biggest flop in college football for 2005? Or are they emotionally fragile, ready to lapse into another downward spiral if the '06 season starts poorly?

Those are questions that won't be answered until September. That's why 2006 projects to be the most pivotal season of Phillip Fulmer's tenure.

Tennessee Defense

One of Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis' favorite lines is: "I'd rather focus on who we have instead of who we don't have."

That's particularly true this year because the losses from the 2005 stop unit are staggering. Gone are starting ends Parys Haralson and Jason Hall, starting tackle Jesse Mahelona and backup Tony McDaniel, starting linebackers Kevin Simon, Omar Gaither and Jason Mitchell, along with star defensive back Jason Allen.

In spite of this, Chavis notes their passing in typical low-key style: "It's well documented that we lost some really fine players from last year."

Minus six members of last fall's starting front seven, the coordinator spent all spring scrambling to fill the holes. As preseason drills approach, he's still scrambling. Only one starting job is secure: All-America candidate Justin Harrell will line up at one of the tackle spots.

Fellow senior Turk McBride will start somewhere in the front four but where is yet to be determined. Chavis would like to use McBride at end, where his skills as a pass rusher can be fully exploited. First, though, Chavis must feel comfortable with the depth at tackle. The key may be Matt McGlothlin, a 6-foot, 300-pound senior walk-on who played in 2004, then missed the entire 2005 season on a disciplinary suspension.

"We may need to play Turk McBride outside to get the kind of pass rush we need," Chavis says. "That would give Matt McGlothlin a chance to step in and start for us."

Tennessee ranked 10th among the 12 Southeastern Conference teams in pass defense last fall, allowing 215.7 yards per game. Pass defense should be the strength of the 2006 defense, however. Except for Allen, a first-round NFL Draft pick who missed the last half of 2005 with a dislocated hip, the secondary returns intact.

Safeties Jonathan Hefney and Antwan Stewart started every game last fall but are being challenged by talented sophomore Demetrice Morley. Jonathan Wade and Inquoris Johnson started the last half of 2005 at the cornerback spots but are being pushed by former starter Roshaun Fellows.

"The secondary should be the strength of our defense," Chavis says. "The unique thing about this situation is that, even though we're returning the four guys who started the last six ballgames for us, there's still competition going on. That's going to help you get better.

"We also have worked some of the safeties (Stewart, Hefney) at corner. Hefney can go out and play corner if we need for him to. We're going to be very versatile back there."

The secondary had better be versatile. With six new faces in the front seven, there will be tremendous pressure on the defensive backfield.

Tennessee Offense

The Tennessee Vols are looking for better quarterback play in 2006, and it shouldn't be hard to find. Almost anything would be an improvement over the QB performance of 2005.

Consider: Tennessee quarterbacks Brent Schaeffer, Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen combined for 27 touchdown passes in 2004 as the Vols posted 10 victories. Ainge and Clausen combined for only 11 TD passes in 2005 as the Vols notched just five victories.

Now that Clausen is out of eligibility, Ainge has the quarterback job virtually by default. Still, he must improve on last year's performance, when he compiled a chilly 45.5 percent completion percentage and a woeful 89.94 passer-efficiency rating. Ainge's struggles were a key reason Tennessee averaged a paltry 18.6 points per game last fall, costing offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens and receivers coach Pat Washington their jobs.

If Ainge can return to the form he showed as a freshman in 2004, Tennessee's offense could make significant strides in 2006. Tailback Arian Foster ran for 879 yards as a redshirt freshman last fall, even though he was Gerald Riggs' backup for six of the 11 games. Tennessee needs another big year from Foster, plus a bounce-back year from fullback Cory Anderson, a 265-pounder who slumped badly in '05 after a fine year in '04.

Head coach Phillip Fulmer says the 2005 receiving corps underachieved more so than any group at any position he can remember. Trooper Taylor is now coaching the wideout corps, which features Robert Meachem (a team-high 29 catches last fall), Jayson Swain (27 catches) and Bret Smith (21). Sophomore Josh Briscoe, who averaged 20 yards on four receptions as a freshman, could be poised for a break-out year. Fellow soph Lucas Taylor has the speed and elusiveness to provide the big-play dimension Tennessee has lacked in recent years.

The only significant departures from the 2005 offense were in the line – tackle Albert Toeaina, plus guards Cody Douglas and Rob Smith. If suitable replacements can be found, Tennessee's attack should be better than it was a year ago. Arron Sears is a preseason All-American at left tackle, and David Ligon will start at either center or guard. The best bets to fill out the starting line are sophomores Ramon Foster and Anthony Parker, along with junior Eric Young.

If the line play is solid, Tennessee's offensive performance should be better in 2006 than it was in 2005. Then again, how could it be much worse?

"It all comes down to execution," Ainge said. "It doesn't matter what we're calling. We could tell ‘em (defenders) what we're going to run, but if we execute they shouldn't be able to stop it."

Tennessee's execution was so bad in 2005 that David Cutcliffe has been brought in to fix it. He coordinated the high-scoring Vol attacks of 1993-98, then left to become head man at Ole Miss. Now that he's back, Vol fans are hoping for a return to past glory.

"We're doing a lot of different stuff," Ainge said. "We're not just doing the stuff we did last year. I don't want to get too in-depth but it's all good stuff."

Even "good stuff" won't work, though, unless the execution is significantly better than last year. The quarterbacks missed too many open receivers. The running backs fumbled too many times inside the 5-yard line. The receivers dropped too many catchable passes. The line incurred too many drive-killing penalties. All of the new plays in the world won't help unless these problems are fixed. Ainge believes that process already has begun.

"I think we're drastically improved," he said. "We've still got a long way to go but I think good things will come."

Special Teams

Special-teams play is one-third of football – along with offense and defense – and the Tennessee Vols had better keep that in mind throughout the 2006 season. With a bunch of new aides on offense and a bunch of new starters on defense, the Big Orange may need more help from special teams than usual.

That could be a pipe dream, however, since Tennessee's special-teams play in 2005 barely qualified as mediocre.

The Vols were fifth among the 12 Southeastern Conference teams in punt returns (8.4 yards per runback) and eighth in kickoff returns (19.8 yards per runback). They were seventh in net punting (33.5 yards) and fourth in field goal percentage (14 of 19 for 73.7). They were 10th in punt coverage, allowing opponents to average 5.6 yards per runback.

The only two special-teams areas in which Tennessee distinguished itself in 2005 was kicking conversions and covering kickoffs. James Wilhoit nailed 100 percent of his 21 extra-point attempts, helping the Vols tie for first place among SEC teams in that category. Meanwhile, the coverage unit averaged 44.3 net yards on kickoffs. In other words, if UT kicked from the 35-yard line, the average return would be to the 21-yard line.

How much progress Tennessee can make in terms of special-teams play for 2006 is debatable. Wilhoit returns for his senior year as the placement specialist, so the field-goal and extra-point percentages should be strong again. His booming kickoffs should ensure another year of quality kick coverage, as well.

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